As a child, I thought that God lived in St. George’s Anglican Church, then a small cream-coloured stucco building on the corner of Grosvenor Avenue and Wilton Street, just across the back lane from the fire hall. It had a peaked, brown-shingled roof and heavy dark wooden doors that creaked when we pulled them open. Mother started taking us to services there shortly after Daddy left for Hong Kong. She told him about it in a letter.
You will be glad to know that we are going to St. George’s now. Special prayers have been said for you many times there, and I have found it a great source of strength and comfort. The minister, Mr. Dowker, brought me all the flowers from the altar at both Christmas and Easter.
St. George’s Anglican Church, as it looked in the 1940s; located on the corner of Grosvenor and Wilton, it was rebuilt in the 1950s.
I always felt very small sitting in the pew beside Mother.
The church was dark inside, and very ornate in an English sort of way. Red paisley carpet marched down the centre aisle and all the way up the steps into the chancel where the choir members sat in their black and white robes. The organ was behind the choir.
We couldn’t see it, but we could certainly hear it. There seemed to be about a thousand gold-coloured pipes that reached all the way to the ceiling, and the sound echoed with great intensity throughout the building. There were both men and women in the choir, and the women wore black hats that were flat on top and had a tassel hanging over one ear.
‘Why do they wear those funny hats?’ I asked. ‘Did God tell them to?’
Mother laughed. ‘I don’t think it’s God’s idea. Church choir women have always worn those hats. They’re called mortarboards.’
‘The tassels must tickle their ears,’ said Barbara. We tried not to giggle at the sight of the tassels swaying back and forth in time to the music. Mother would sit between us so that we couldn’t talk to each other, but we’d communicate by making faces and grinning across her lap. This would set Roger off and he’d start to giggle.
‘Behave yourselves,’ Mother would say. ‘Don’t forget you’re in God’s house.’
‘Where is God?’ asked Barbara. ‘I can’t see him. Is he sleeping?’
‘God is everywhere around us,’ said Mother, ‘but he’s invisible, so we can’t see him.’
Dark wooden rafters formed the vaulted ceiling of the church.
It seemed very high up, as high as heaven itself. I’d imagine that God was hiding up there, looking down on us. Mr. Dowker, the priest, reading from The Book of Common Prayer, intoned that we should confess our sins and wickedness, meekly kneeling upon our knees. I’d try to kneel, but the kneeler was hard and cold and it hurt my knees, so I’d sort of squat instead and hope that God wouldn’t notice.
I’d think of bad things I’d done that week, such as teasing Roger by hiding his stuffed puppy. He’d cried, and Mother had been cross and made me give it back to him. Then I’d been mad at Mother and said that she liked Roger better than me, and she’d said that’s not true but Roger is just little so I shouldn’t be mean to him. I told God I was sorry. I tried to think of other bad things I’d done, but I couldn’t remember any, not really bad things.
The church smelled of candle wax and flowers. There were shiny brass vases of flowers on the carved wooden altar, and brass candlesticks, and brass collection plates that were passed up and down the pews halfway through the service. In spite of all the gleaming brass, the church was dark inside because all the windows had what I saw as coloured pictures in them, so the sun couldn’t shine through. Mother explained that the windows were made from stained glass. The one I liked best was of Jesus holding a lamb. Mr. Dowker said that Jesus was a shepherd and we are all his lambs and he takes care of us. Mother prayed that Jesus would look after Daddy, and sometimes when I sat very still in church, I could hear God telling me that Daddy would be home soon.
I thought the church was sort of scary because they brought dead people there for funerals. Sometimes Barbara and I and the other kids would stand across the street to watch people come out of the church after a funeral. We never saw the dead people because they were in big long boxes with shiny silver handles that Mother told us were called caskets. She said that the dead people are very comfortable because there were soft pillows under their heads. There were always flowers on top of the caskets, even in winter. We’d watch men in dark suits put the casket in the back of the black funeral car that Mother said was called a hearse. We could see the casket through the window. All the people coming our of the church wore dark clothes. They were very quiet and some of them were crying.
I liked weddings better because all the people looked so happy. They came out of the church laughing, and hugging each other, and they threw coloured specks of paper at the bride and groom. The groom always looked so handsome and the bride was always smiling, and she wore a beautiful dress, just like a princess.
Like our school teachers, our Sunday School teachers were bound and determined to turn us into paragons of Victorian morality, and they also considered it their mission to imbue us with Christian ethics. On Sunday afternoons we went off to Sunday School, where we were divided into classes according to our grades at school. When I was in grade four, my teacher was a middle-aged woman named Miss Nelson. She had grey hair and gold-rimmed glasses and she wore a grey skirt with pleats and a grey blouse with black buttons. She had a silver cross on a chain around her neck and she knew a lot about the Bible.
Sunday School always began with prayers, and the singing of hymns from the section ‘Hymns for Children’ in The Book of Common Praise. Inside the front cover of each hymn book was an oval stamp that read ‘St. George’s Church: Not to be Taken Away From Winnipeg’. There was hardly a book that hadn’t had its stamp changed by mishievous Sunday School students to read
‘St. George’s Church Is to be Taken Away From Winnipeg’; this was simply done, by crossing out ‘not’ with a stubby pencil and replacing it with ‘is’.
I suppose that the hymns and prayers were chosen to make us feel guilty for our sins, and to teach us to spread the gospel.
‘Yield not to temptation for yielding is sin,’ we sang, and ‘fight manfully onward, dark passions subdue’. I often wondered what dark passions were. One hymn said to ‘shun evil companions’ and to not use bad language, and to hold God’s name in reverence, and that Jesus will help you to do all this. The same hymn told of the children in faraway places who didn’t know about Jesus, so they worshipped idols. The hymn said that they were ‘benighted’and needed to be shown ‘the lamp of life’ by ‘we whose souls are lighted with wisdom from on high’. In other words, it was our job to proclaim Messiah’s name until all the people in faraway nations had received salvation. Another hymn said that those faraway children had never read the Bible, so they did not know Jesus’ name, and it professed the wish that soon may ‘every tribe and nation fulfil thy blessed word and cast their idols all away.’
The Sunday School superintendent, Miss Wilson, stood at the front of the church, wearing a forbidding-looking tweed suit and a black felt hat and sensible black oxfords, conducting us by wagging her index finger back and forth as Miss Riley played the organ.
‘Look at Miss Wilson, the one-finger conductor,’ said Jerry Stovel. ‘I hope she doesn’t knock her hat off!’
We learned a lot about Africa and I wondered where it was.
There was a map of the world in our class at school with pictures of Neilsen’s chocolate bars in the corners, but it was too high up on the wall for me to be able to read the names of the countries.
Miss Nelson told us that Africa was a continent in the south part of the world and it was very far away and really hot there. She said that black people lived there, and a lot of them didn’t know Jesus, so it was our job to help them learn about him.
For this purpose, we collected money during Lent in little boxes with pointed tops. There was slot in the front to put the pennies in. The money was supposed to go to Africa to buy Bibles for the black people. A lady from our church was what Mother called a missionary, and she was in Africa teaching the people there about Jesus. I didn’t think I’d like to go so far away from home.
After we sang the hymns the teachers passed around collection plates. Mother gave us each a nickel a week to put on the plate. We’d sing a song about pennies for Jesus. It went like this:
‘Hear the pennies dropping, listen as they fall, every one for Jesus, He may have them all.’
After we’d sung the hymns and taken up the collection, we’d go to our individual classes and Miss Nelson would read to us from the Bible. She told us that God always takes cares of the good people and punishes the bad ones. We should try to be like Jesus, she said, and always do good things so that God won’t be angry with us.
‘The wrath of God is to be feared,’ Miss Nelson said.
‘Remember, you reap what you sow.’
I asked Mother what ‘you reap what you sow’ meant, and she said it’s the same as the Golden Rule: Do Unto Others as You Would Have Them Do Unto You.
‘If you want other people to be kind to you, you must be kind to them,’ she said.
‘But sometimes I am kind to people, and they’re still not nice to me,’ I told her. ‘I lent Angus McDonald my eraser and then he wouldn’t give it back. Will God punish him?’
‘Well, boys will be boys, and Angus was just teasing you,’ she said. ‘If you ask him nicely I’m sure he’ll give your eraser back.
You must always try to do the right thing, and God will know that you are trying.’
‘But the Bible says that God punishes the bad people. What about Hitler? And what about the Japanese who are keeping Daddy in prison? Will God punish them?’
‘Oh Margaret, these are very deep questions. We just have to do the best we can in life and pray that God will take care of us. We can’t tell what God will do to other people. There is always trouble in the world, and I think it must make God very sad.
The best thing any of us can do is put our trust in Him and in each other.’
This sounded like good advice, but when I thought about Daddy in prison on the other side of the world, I didn’t think that God was being very fair.